The Milky Way (1969)

(a.k.a. La Voie Lactée)

D: Luis Buñuel
S: Paul Frankeur, Laurent Terzieff, Michel Piccoli

Luis Buñuel described The Milky Way as: "an objective film, made by an agnostic, about religion and its heresies." Agnostic though he may have been, Buñuel (and co-writer Claude Carrière) was nonetheless sufficiently versed in Christian doctrine and possessed of enough of a sense of surrealist irony to ensure that each of his sketches on the mysteries of Christian faith would be not only catechetically accurate, but funny without being unnecessarily offensive. If there is offence present, it is in the heresies themselves, whose details are often hilarious though sometimes terrifying. Provocative as always, Buñuel contrived to let human folly speak for itself.

Educated by Jesuits, Buñuel had more than a nodding acquaintance with the orthodoxies of Catholicism and first hand experience of its anger. In 1930 he scandalised the Church with the hugely controversial L'Age d'Or (made in collaboration with artist Salvador Dali), which attacked every moral and political institution presumed to be at the centre of Christian society. It was promptly banned following ecclesiastical condemnation. Then in 1961 he returned to his native Spain with the backing of the Government, who presumed he had been tamed following years of virtual exile in Mexico and the lauded drama Nazarin, and directed Viridiana, a vicious attack on the hypocrisy of the well-meaning bourgeoisie and the idiocy of empty charity. The film featured a former nun who is eventually raped by one of her charges in a huge aristocratic mansion. He once again faced massive protest, but this time the calls for censorship remained unheeded as the film co-won the Grand Prize at the Cannes Film Festival.

The Milky Way begins with a documentary voice over explaining the route taken by pilgrims from France to Spain along St. James' Way. Following the credits, we are introduced to our central characters, Laurent Terzieff and Paul Frankeur, transients eager to earn some alms from good Christian travellers on their way along that same route.

They soon encounter a small boy by the side of the road with familiar wounds in his hands, side and forehead. They offer him help and wine, and though he refuses it, he hails a large and comfortable car, the driver of which offers to bring the men to the Spanish border. As they settle back in comfort, thanking their good fortune, one of them exclaims, "My God!" in satisfaction. The driver scowls, pulls over and promptly ejects them to the kerb for their heresy.

Though it may seem random and unconnected, the film is structured around series of specific Christian mysteries: the double nature of Christ, the Holy Trinity, the Virgin Mary, the Eucharist, the mysteries of grace and the origin of evil. That the individual illustrations move freely between place and time, with only our two bewildered pilgrims as a link, is not really that important. With characteristic surrealist disregard for the logic of a 'normal' world, Buñuel explores the internal logic of various Christian heresies and allows things to proceed to their natural conclusion, to the point where, in one memorable scene, two men from opposing schools of thought duel with one another with rapiers whilst discussing their theological propositions aloud.

The film pulls off the delicate balancing act of attacking the human rather than the Divine. It is the interpretation which is in question, not the spirit. No one is victimised who does not choose it, either by hypocrisy or ill-will, or by pledging their faith to an improper destiny based upon a misunderstanding of the principles of their religion. Buñuel's scorn is reserved only for those who are not true to what they believe in, and there is a certain affection in the manner in which he details the various consequences of the actions of his heretics and a definite kindness in his portrayal of Christ himself contemplating shaving off his beard.

Like his later film The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, the film reveals Buñuel's sympathy with those whom he had previously regarded as his enemies. His awareness that the teachings of the Church have nonetheless formed his own thinking about the world results in a most peculiar form of homage that may not be seen as such by those unfamiliar with the ethos.

The Milky Way is a tame Buñuel by comparison with much of his earlier work. It was the third of his French films of the late sixties and early seventies, following the hugely successful Belle de Jour. He would only direct four more films, the last two of which would be more like weak imitations of his own work than fully realised surrealist visions. Yet The Milky Way is his second last masterpiece, with only The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie to come, winning him an Oscar in 1972. Its skilful navigation of the delicate waters of theology and philosophy is to be admired, and its comic absurdity is genuinely enjoyable.

The picaresque style of the film is generally tempered by the 'road movie' structure which overlays it, though it does occasionally resemble an episode of Monty Python's Flying Circus, which had begun to adopt many of the surrealist's devices for television comedy. It sometimes makes for difficult viewing, but remains a typically disorienting voyage through the landscape of the human mind.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2001.